The New Green Certification Standard for Paints

In September 2021, Green Seal, a green-certification organization, announced an update to its GS-11 certification standard for paints and coatings. One of its features is that it now fully aligns with LEED’s Green Building Rating System. This means that paint and coating products certified under this new standard are designated by the U.S. Green Building Council as complying with the requirements of the new LEED v4 and v4.1 Low Emitting Materials credit.

Currently, the new standard is the only paint certification that automatically qualifies products for Amazon’s Climate Pledge Friendly Badge. This program allows Amazon to partner with certification organizations, making it easier for purchasers to select environmentally preferable products that also help promote sustainability.

Because this standard is so new, many in the building, construction, and retrofit industries may have questions about it and what it means for their business, their customers and the environment.

Further, we should know that once a standard is updated by one organization, others may follow. This broadens the scope of the standard, expanding its impact on the construction and retrofit industries considerably.

For more insight on this topic, I went straight to the head of Green Seal, Doug Gatlin. Doug has a long history in the green and environmental movement. Along with being Green Seal’s CEO, he has held senior leadership positions with the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED program and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s ENERGY STAR Program.

Doug Gatlin is Green Seal’s CEO and has held senior leadership positions with the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED program and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s ENERGY STAR Program.

Let’s begin.

Doug, my first question is somewhat generic. What does it mean when a product is green-certified?

That depends. There are some ecolabels that are virtually meaningless and allow companies to self-certify. There are others that are run by the company itself without any independent oversight or validation. There are also single-attribute ecolabels that examine only one product feature and may overlook serious tradeoffs that result in significant environmental impacts from other product features.

Then there are what’s considered the gold standard—independent, multi-attribute ecolabels that look comprehensively at a product’s environmental impacts across the product’s life cycle, including during manufacturing, use, packaging and disposal. Green Seal and a few other certification bodies focus on multi-attribute ecolabel.

Ultimately, the goal of independent, reputable ecolabels is to help consumers and business professionals identify products that meet one or more meaningful sustainability attributes.

Why do manufacturers want their products to be green certified?

Many manufacturers believe it is the “right thing to do,” and for many, protecting the environment and promoting sustainability is now part of their corporate culture. But it can’t be denied that having green-certified products is just good business. In January 2020, a study conducted by IBM and the National Retail Federation reported that nearly 70 percent of all consumers in North America believe it is vital for a company to be sustainable and eco-friendly. This percentage is even higher among younger people. What this means for the pocketbook, so to speak, is that most people now make purchasing decisions based on environmental considerations.

How are products green-certified by organizations like Green Seal?

Generally, before the certification process can begin, the certification organization must establish standards and criteria for a healthier and greener product. Some follow Green Seal’s example and do this through a public process that invites participation and comment from experts, stakeholders and members of the public. Once a standard exists, manufacturers must produce their products using these criteria if they want the product to be certified. The certification organization evaluates the product to ensure it meets the criteria in the standard. If it does, the product can bear the mark of the certification organization.

What is the goal of the new GS-11 paint certification standard?

What we are trying to do is reward manufacturers and businesses that take steps to reduce the environmental footprint of their products and services. These manufacturers are contributing to the greater good and deserve to be recognized.

In the case of the GS-11 paint standard, specifically, we want to reward those manufacturers who are producing paints and coatings that are not only low in VOCs (volatile organic compounds), but also free of carcinogens, reproductive toxins, and hazardous chemicals like triclosan, phthalates and alkylphenol ethoxylates.

When construction or retrofit professionals select these products, they are protecting their own employees, as well as building occupants. These certified paints align with the LEED v4.1 green building rating system, they can help facilities get LEED-certified and, for those that are certified, maintain their LEED certification.

What types of construction-related products are covered in the new standard?

The standard covers paints and coatings applied onsite to indoor and outdoor surfaces of a home or commercial facility. It also applies to stains and finishes intended and labeled for use on wood and metal surfaces.

Why is there so much focus on VOCs in the standard?

VOCs are found in many products we use every day. However, they can be heavily concentrated in paints, finishes, stains, and related building, retrofitting, and construction materials. As a result, VOCs have become all-too-common indoor air pollutants.

Why is this so important? The answer to that question is hidden in the name itself. The “volatile” in VOCs refers to substances that do not bind together. They quickly find their way into indoor air allowing them to be inhaled. The fact that they are “organic” means that these substances do not dissolve in water, further allowing them to be inhaled.

Examples are the following:

Benzene: Some industries use benzene to make other chemicals that are used to make plastics, resins, and nylon and synthetic fibers. Benzene is also used to make some types of lubricants, rubbers, dyes, detergents, drugs and pesticides.

Formaldehyde: Formaldehyde is found in many products in the construction and retrofit industries.

Ethylene glycol: A key ingredient in antifreeze, it is also found in brake fluids, used to make some plastics, and a variety of other products. NOTE: Should you see a “mist” in a stage performance, it is often made using ethylene glycol.

Methylene chloride: A solvent, used as a paint stripper and a propellant in some aerosols, and in making some drugs.

Toluene: Widely used as a solvent and found in paint and lacquer thinners.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), VOCs are emitted as vapors or gases. Some have short- and others have long-term adverse health effects, but most VOCs pose some health risk depending on concentration and other factors.

These health effects can include the following:

•          Eye, nose and throat irritation

•          Headaches, loss of coordination and nausea

•          Damage to liver, kidney and central nervous system

•          Allergic skin reaction

•          Breathing problems

•          Cognitive issues (impaired thinking)

We should also know that according to the World Health Organization, there are nearly 4 million deaths each year due to indoor air pollution, much of it the result of VOCs.

Does product performance come into the picture?

Undoubtedly. The goals of a certification organization are marginalized if the product does not perform as well as—if not better than—than market alternatives. Just as important as establishing health and environmental criteria for products categories, we must establish functional performance criteria to ensure the product works as consumers expect them to. GS-11 certification is designed to tell purchasers that these certified paints, coatings, stains and sealers deliver quality in terms of performance.

What else do we need to know about the new paint standard as well as green certification in general?

Building, construction, and retrofit professionals should know that GS-11 includes packaging requirements. This is common when certifying other types of products. In this case, the package must be made using at least 20 percent recovered or recycled material and be part of a manufacturer’s “take back” program.

Another thing, in almost all cases, aerosol cans are prohibited. There are different reasons for this; however, at the top of the list is that aerosol cans are now considered “universal waste.” Further, in many cases, aerosol cans are viewed as hazardous waste, requiring that their disposal follow a specific and often complicated process, which all too often is not adhered to.

Finally, GS-11 includes labeling requirements that state what information must be on the product’s label. The label must instruct users how to use the product efficiently to help reduce waste, and whether following ventilation guidelines is necessary when using the product. In addition, the label must encourage purchasers to consult with local authorities about appropriate disposal or if there are recycling opportunities or “take back” programs associated with the product.

The New Normal Is Greener

As we inch our way out of the pandemic, one of the things that we are starting to notice is that all types of organizations, from manufacturers and consumers to businesses on Wall Street are paying more attention to sustainability. This year an estimated $51 billion is expected to be invested in green technologies and programs, the most ever.

We should expect to see more products in many industries, including the construction and retrofit industry, that are greener and healthier for people and the planet. GS-11 is just one of many certifications that will be updated or introduced to accommodate these changes. Ultimately, these will benefit our planet and, for businesses and construction professionals, our businesses. It’s what consumers want and need us to deliver.

About the Author

Robert Kravitz
Robert Kravitz is a frequent writer for the professional cleaning and building industries.

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